How a Palin-Backed No-Name Toppled Alaska's GOP Incumbent

The unlikely rise of Joe Miller

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In one of the biggest political upsets of the year, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has conceded defeat to her Republican primary opponent. Murkowski lost out to Joe Miller, a conservative lawyer and relative unknown, after trailing him by some 1,600 votes. Miller depicted Murkowski as insufficiently conservative and vowed to rein in Washington excess. Though he enjoyed the support of the Tea Party Express and Sarah Palin, few predicted he could dislodge an establishment GOP incumbent. So how did Miller pull off the upset?

  • Miller Had the Right Bio to Win, writes Robert Stacy McCain at The American Spectator: "The key factor in Miller's victory was the candidate himself. A West Point graduate and veteran of the 1991 Gulf War with a Yale Law degree and a master's degree in economics, Miller persuasively argued the case against a continuation of the GOP establishment's 'go along to get along' posture."
Rule: Political endorsements don't typically matter all that much, no matter who they're from, short of, say, the spirits of John F. Kennedy or Ronald Regan, back from a trip to the afterlife. Murkowski exception: If you're running to represent Alaska in Washington, D.C., and you find yourself crosswise with the political phenomenon that is Palin, be prepared to instead take a long look at Russia from the comfort of your house.
  • Murkowski Lost Over Abortion, writes Chris Kelly at The Huffington Post: "She lost her primary for being insufficiently anti-abortion. (Here's what that means for a Republican in Alaska: She and her opponent both endorsed a parental notification ballot measure, but he endorsed it harder.)"
  • Murkowski Could Have Won If She Had Gone Negative, writes Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post: "Her defeat appears to have been avoidable had she been willing to follow the basic rules of politics. Despite the fact that Miller was running a credible campaign -- with the backing of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin no less -- Murkowski refused the advice of national party strategists to go negative and sat on nearly $2 million in campaign cash that could have been used to attack Miller."
  • It's Not That Simple, says Matt Moon, an Alaska native and former deputy research director for the RNC: "There has been a lot of talk about how wrong the polls were, the ballot initiative concerning abortion, and why Lisa Murkowski decided not to 'go negative' on Joe Miller. Yet it's just not as simple as that.":
1. When attacked by Miller on health care via paid media, Murkowski chose to respond directly only via earned media.
2. When you're being attacked in paid media in a Republican primary in this environment, the right response in paid media isn't to say "Here's evidence that I'm a conservative." It shows a certain sign of weakness...
3. Murkowski had the right response to Joe Miller ready to go, but never used it.
4. While Miller's supporters had all the motivation in the world to show up, Murkowski gave no motivation to her base of supporters to go vote for her.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.